The Role of Mothers As Gift Givers: a Comparison ACRoss Three Cultures

Constance Hill, University of Wollongong
Celia T. Romm, University of Wollongong
ABSTRACT - The major research objective was to use the four elements in our gift-giving model, i.e. motivation, selection, presentation, and reaction, to compare and contrast the role of mothers in the Anglo-Celtic, Sino-Vietnamese, and Israeli cultures. A particular emphasis was placed on the why, when, where, and how mothers in these three cultures exchange gifts with their children. The data was collected through a series of in-depth interviews with 60 mothers, i.e. 20 mothers from each culture. The results indicate that even though mothers in all three cultures play a central role in family gift giving, there are significant differences in the way in which this role is played in each culture. These cultural differences are highlighted in relation to two behavioural dimensions, i.e. power distance and individualism/ collectivism, previously identified by Hofstede (1980).
[ to cite ]:
Constance Hill and Celia T. Romm (1996) ,"The Role of Mothers As Gift Givers: a Comparison ACRoss Three Cultures", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 21-29.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 21-29

THE ROLE OF MOTHERS AS GIFT GIVERS: A COMPARISON ACROSS THREE CULTURES

Constance Hill, University of Wollongong

Celia T. Romm, University of Wollongong

ABSTRACT -

The major research objective was to use the four elements in our gift-giving model, i.e. motivation, selection, presentation, and reaction, to compare and contrast the role of mothers in the Anglo-Celtic, Sino-Vietnamese, and Israeli cultures. A particular emphasis was placed on the why, when, where, and how mothers in these three cultures exchange gifts with their children. The data was collected through a series of in-depth interviews with 60 mothers, i.e. 20 mothers from each culture. The results indicate that even though mothers in all three cultures play a central role in family gift giving, there are significant differences in the way in which this role is played in each culture. These cultural differences are highlighted in relation to two behavioural dimensions, i.e. power distance and individualism/ collectivism, previously identified by Hofstede (1980).

INTRODUCTION

Much of the gift giving research to date has focused on the family with the role of mother as major gift giver being stressed. Women have been described as prime initiators and agents who do most of the shopping, decorating and gift-wrapping. Only recently has the role of mother as gift giver been explored across cultures (Hill and Romm 1995).

The major objective of this research is to explore the role of mothers in family gift giving across three cultures. The underlying assumption here is that family gift giving is one of the main ways in which consumer socialisation occurs. It is through this process that parents shape their children's present and future behaviour as consumers. Understanding gift giving in the family context is a key for understanding consumer behaviour and, consequently, for designing effective marketing strategies within and across cultures.

The theoretical model on which this study is based derives from the works of Belk (1979) and Sherry (1983) on gift-giving behaviour. The model assumes that family gift-giving is a continual process that consists of four interactive elements, namely: (1) motivation, (2) selection, (3) presentation, and (4) reaction. It also assumes that these four elements do not take place in fixed periods of time but rather, once activated, continue to play a direct or indirect role throughout the entire family gift-giving process. In this study, we use the four elements to compare and contrast the role of mothers as gift givers in Anglo-Celtic, Sino-Vietnamese, and Israeli cultures.

LITERATURE REVIEW

Tribal cultures were the first context in which gift-giving practices were studied (Levi-Strauss 1949; Malinowski 1922, 1926; Mauss 1954). In the 1960s, psychologists and sociologists began to study gift giving (Blau 1964, Gouldner 1960, Sahlins 1965, Schwartz 1967). By the late 1970s, the study of gift-giving behaviour began to be explored by consumer researchers (Belk 1979, Sherry 1983).

Family Gift Giving. Luschen (1972) was the first to explore family gift giving. His findings revealed that regardless of the change in family structure to isolated nuclear units, gift giving remains important as a means of promoting and strengthening family ties. Later, Caplow (1982) came to the same conclusion. More recently, Cheal's (1988) findings mainly supported these previous studies.

The Role of Mothers in Family Gift Giving. In accordance with Mead's (1934) role theory, the role of mothers in family gift giving is defined here as the expected patterns of behaviour that the mother learns and internalises through the socialisation process and expresses during gift exchange. Principal researchers to consider the significance of the mothers' gift-giving role include Caplow (1982), DiLeonardo (1987), Cheal (1988), and Fischer and Arnold (1990). Still, these studies did not fully explore why, when, where, or how mothers exchange gifts within the family.

Family Gift Giving Across Cultures. Most research on family gift giving has focussed on the West. Only recently have researchers started to consider the importance of extending this research to non-Western cultures. Belk (1984) proposed that gift giving serves different purposes across cultures, relating these differences to the extent to which the culture emphasises the individual. In collectivistic cultures, individuals evaluate themselves and others on group-based characteristics, e.g. ancestral background and national, historical achievements. In such cultures, e.g. Chinese societies, the purpose of gift giving is to reinforce a group-based self-concept. In contrast, in individualistic cultures, individuals assess themselves and others on personal characteristics, e.g. age, occupation, and education. In such cultures, e.g. Australia, the purpose of gift giving is to reinforce an individual-based self-concept.

The Gift-Giving Process. Even though Belk (1979) was the first consumer researcher to consider gift-giving, his emphasis was on givers, gifts, recipients, and situational conditions rather than on the gift-giving process. Sherry (1983) was the first consumer researcher to consider the actual gift-giving process, emphasising the temporal aspects of gift giving which correspond to the consumer decision-making model (Engel, Kollat and Blackwell 1968). In Sherry's conceptualisation, gift giving is a process which starts by the giver being motivated to give a gift, continues through the selection and exchange, and culminates with the recipient's response. Both Belk and Sherry recognised gift exchange is essentially a communication process.

The theoretical framework for this research builds on Sherry's (1983) work in which gift-giving behaviour is conceptualised as a process consisting of the following four elements: (1) motivation [M], (2) selection [S], (3) presentation [P], and (4) reaction [R]. Our model assumes that even though the gift-giving process can be described in terms of these four elements, it is more complex. Thus, over a period of time, each family member goes through the process more than once. Also, the assumption is made that when family members go through the process, it is in a simultaneous and complementary way, with each family member simultaneously initiating and responding to the gift-giving behaviour of the others. Figure 1 presents the basic components of our simultaneous complementary family gift-giving model. The term 'parent' in the figure refers in this instance to mothers.

The motivation element [M] is defined here as the trigger for the gift-giving process. The motive for gift giving can be a special occasion or an ad hoc situation impelling one family member to give a gift to another. To operationalise the motivation element, the following issues are addressed: (1) how mothers explain what they try to achieve by giving a gift, i.e. justification; (2) how mothers explain the significance of a gift, i.e. significance; and (3) how mothers explain the timing for giving a gift, i.e. timing.

FIGURE 1

THE SIMULTANEOUS COMPLEMENTARY FAMILY GIFT-GIVING PROCESS

The selection element [S] is defined here as an internal and external search and evaluation process whereby the giver decides on a suitable gift for the recipient. To operationalise the selection element, the following issues are addressed: (1) how mothers explain their involvement during gift selection, i.e. involvement; (2) how mothers explain the family influences on them during gift selection, i.e. family influences; (3) how mothers explain the advertising and point-of-sale influences on them during gift selection, i.e. promotional influences; and (4) how mothers explain the necessary attributes of gifts, i.e. gift attributes.

The presentation element [P] is defined here as the point in time when the actual gift exchange takes place. To operationalise the presentation element, the following issues are addressed: (1) how mothers explain what they are trying to say through gift presentation, i.e. presentation messages; (2) how mothers explain what they are trying to say through gift allocation, i.e. allocation messages; and (3) how mothers explain the recipient's understanding of what they are trying to say through the presentation and allocation of gifts, i.e. understanding of messages.

The reaction element [R] is defined here as the direct or indirect manner in which the recipient responds to the gift. To operationalise the reaction element, the following issues are addressed: (1) how mothers explain whether they achieve what they originally intended by giving a gift, i.e. achievement; (2) how mothers explain the feedback from the recipient about the gift, i.e. feedback; and (3) how mothers explain what the recipient does with the gift, i.e. usage.

METHODOLOGY

An inductive, qualitative approach was used in which an attempt was made to explain the phenomena's significance as described from the respondents' perspective. Thus, in-depth interviews were required.

Sample. The sample consisted of 60 mothers, 20 from each cultural group: Anglo-Celtic, Sino-Vietnamese, and Israeli. The Anglo-Celtic mothers, who were born in Australia, and the Sino-Vietnamese mothers, who were born in Vietnam, were all interviewed in Sydney, Australia. The Israeli mothers, who were born in Israel of first-generation European parents, were interviewed in Beer Sheva and Tel Aviv, Israel. These cultural groups were selected because they represent different positions on a continuum ranging from extreme individualism (Anglo-Celtic), mid-range (Israeli) and extreme collectivism (Sino-Vietnamese) as indicated by Hofstede (1980). An attempt was made to keep all variables constant to highlight cultural differences. Thus, the study focussed on mothers who were all homemakers, drawn from middle-class nuclear families in which both biological parents were living together with their children. Within this type of family structure, the mothers all had children of adolescent age, i.e. between the ages of 12 to 21, who lived at home and attended high school, university, or trade school. All the mothers had received at least a high school education.

Research Instrument. The research instrument was a semi-structured interview. During the interviews, the mothers were asked to discuss issues that involved the four gift-giving elements, i.e. motivation, selection, presentation, and reaction. See Table 1 for the interview agenda.

Data Collection and Analysis. Separate interviews, lasting about 2 hours, were conducted by the authors in the mothers' homes. The interviews were tape recorded and transcribed verbatim. To gain access, the study relied on snowball sampling. During the interviews, probing and cross-checking were used continually to assess data validity. The Ethnograph served as an augmenting tool to data analysis.

FINDINGS

Motivation Element

The mothers in all three cultures indicated they were motivated to give gifts that benefit their children. But, differences between the three cultures are worth noting.

Justification. Firstly, the Anglo-Celtic mothers indicated they give gifts to gain short-term benefits for their children, i.e. enhanced self-concept, and for themselves, i.e. their children's love. Secondly, the Sino-Vietnamese mothers indicated they give gifts to gain long-term benefits for their children, i.e. enhanced education and finances. There was no mention of gifts being given to benefit the Sino-Vietnamese mothers themselves. Thirdly, the Israeli mothers indicated they give gifts to gain long-term benefits for their children, i.e. enhanced education, and short-term benefits for themselves, i.e. the children's love.

Significance. Firstly, the Anglo-Celtic mothers indicated that birthday gifts are the most significant because they are very personal and commemorate the individual. Secondly, the Sino-Vietnamese mothers indicated gifts that provide insurance for their children's future, i.e. lucky money, gold jewellery, and academic aids, are the most significant. Thirdly, the Israeli mothers indicated that they only regard a gift as significant if the recipient, i.e. the child, regards it as such.

Timing. Firstly, the Anglo-Celtic mothers indicated they primarily time their gifts to coincide with special occasions, e.g. Christmas and birthdays. Also, they prefer not to give gifts to reward their children's academic endeavours. Secondly, the Sino-Vietnamese mothers indicated that while they always give lucky money at Chinese New Year and sometimes birthday gifts, they rarely give Christmas gifts because of its religious connotation. However, they prefer to give gifts as the need arises or to reward their children's academic progress rather than wait for special gift-giving occasions. Thirdly, the Israeli mothers indicated they primarily give personal gifts on their children's birthdays and gifts for the entire family on other occasions. Also, they all said that gifts are not given at other times of the year as rewards.

Selection Element

The mothers in all three cultures indicated they are the dominant family member during gift selection. But, differences between the three cultures are worth noting.

Involvement. Firstly, the Anglo-Celtic mothers indicated that they spend more time selecting gifts for their children than the fathers. However, most Anglo-Celtic mothers said they enjoy the task and, thus, put a lot of time and effort into it. Secondly, the Sino-Vietnamese mothers indicated that even though they are the main family member responsible for selecting tangible gifts, they do not enjoy the task. For this reason, when gifts are selected, they make the decision as quickly as possible. Thirdly, the Israeli mothers indicated that while they primarily select their children's gifts, they do not spend a lot of time doing so.

Family Influences. Firstly, the Anglo-Celtic mothers indicated their children are the main source of influence in the family. Secondly, the Sino-Vietnamese mothers indicated that even though they are guided by what their children want, they always make the final decision. At those times, the Sino-Vietnamese mothers do not give gifts that they regard as useless or too expensive. Thirdly, the Israeli mothers indicated that while they usually make the gift decisions alone, their children accompany them to the stores when a correct size is needed. At those times, the children do influence the gift decisions.

Promotional Influences. Firstly, the Anglo-Celtic mothers indicated they are mainly influenced by letterbox leaflets. However, the Anglo-Celtic mothers believed they are indirectly influenced by television advertising since it often directly influences their children's gift requests. Also, because most gift decisions are made before the Anglo-Celtic mothers go to the shops, they did not regard point-of-sale material or sales staff as a significant influence. Secondly, the Sino-Vietnamese mothers indicated they preferred to use their own judgment when selecting gifts rather than allow sales staff or promotions to influence them. Thirdly, the Israeli mothers indicated that while they are influenced by newspaper advertisements that promote merchandise at reduced prices, they are never influenced by television advertising. Also, the Israeli mothers said that sales staff rarely influence them since they often shop in self-serve stores.

TABLE 1

INTERVIEW AGENDA

Gift Attributes. Firstly, the Anglo-Celtic mothers indicated that they tend to give name brand items to their children as gifts because they are superior quality. Also, the Anglo-Celtic mothers preferred not to give money gifts, considering them impersonal and lacking in thought and effort. Secondly, the Sino-Vietnamese mothers indicated that they want their gifts to be useful. For this reason, the Sino-Vietnamese mothers said they prefer to give money to their children rather than tangible gifts since money can be saved for the future. However, when tangible gifts are given, price is an important consideration. Consequently, gifts of good quality are often bought on sale. Thirdly, the Israeli mothers indicated that they try to give their children useful gifts that are the best 'quality' within their price range. For this reason, they often buy gifts on sale. Also, the Israeli mothers frequently give money to their children, particularly adolescents, instead of tangible gifts so the children can make their own gift selections.

Presentation Element

The mothers in all three cultures indicated they try to express love to the children during gift presentation. But, differences between the three cultures are worth noting.

Presentation Message. Firstly, the Anglo-Celtic mothers indicated that when they present gifts to their children, they are trying to communicate the fact that they have invested a large amount of time and effort and sometimes made sacrifices to respond to their children's requests. Secondly, the Sino-Vietnamese mothers indicated that when they present tangible gifts to their children, they are trying to communicate that rewards can be expected for academic achievement. When money gifts are presented, however, the Sino-Vietnamese mothers are trying to communicate the need to save for the future. Thirdly, the Israeli mothers indicated that when they present gifts to their children, they are trying to communicate a general feeling of well being.

Allocation Message. Firstly, the Anglo-Celtic mothers indicated that a number of gifts are allocated to each child on special occasions. At those times, they try to communicate impartiality, especially at Christmas when comparisons are made. Secondly, the Sino-Vietnamese mothers indicated that it is not the usual practice for the children to receive multiple gifts or gifts of the same economic value. Instead, gifts are given as the need arises. Also, the older children generally receive a greater amount of lucky money than the younger children since their needs are greater. Thirdly, the Israeli mothers indicated that their children tend to be allocated only one gift per occasion. Since gifts are also allocated according to their children's individual needs, the gifts vary in economic value.

Understanding of Messages. Firstly, the Anglo-Celtic mothers indicated that they are reasonably satisfied that their gift messages are understood and accepted by their children. Secondly, the Sino-Vietnamese mothers indicated that they are satisfied that their children understand and accept their gift messages. They mentioned the fact that the children are diligent students and careful with their money as proof that they do, indeed, get the intended message. Thirdly, the Israeli mothers indicated that they do not believe their children fully understand their gift messages.

Reaction Element

The mothers in all three cultures indicated their daughters are more expressive than their sons when gifts are exchanged. But, differences between the three cultures are worth noting.

Achievement. Firstly, the Anglo-Celtic mothers indicated that their objectives are usually achieved since their children are generally satisfied with their gifts. Secondly, the Sino-Vietnamese mothers indicated that their objectives tend to be achieved since their children are generally satisfied with their gifts and able to put them to good use. Thirdly, the Israeli mothers indicated that while their children are able to put their gifts to good use, they are not necessarily satisfied with them. Thus, the objectives of the Israeli mothers are not altogether achieved.

Feedback. Firstly, the Anglo-Celtic mothers indicated that even though their daughters and sons tend to gain the same amount of satisfaction from their gifts, the feedback from the daughters is more expressive than the sons. Secondly, the Sino-Vietnamese mothers indicated that even though their daughters and sons give positive feedback about their gifts, they are not inclined to express their feelings openly. Thirdly, the Israeli mothers indicated that their daughters and sons tend to be indifferent about their gifts. When their children do express themselves, however, they are more inclined to give negative rather than positive feedback.

Usage. Firstly, the Anglo-Celtic mothers indicated their children tend to use their gifts separately. Secondly, the Sino-Vietnamese mothers indicated their children tend to share their tangible gifts with their siblings. However, when their children receive money, the older children save most of it in their personal bank accounts and the younger children give it back to their parents for safe keeping. Thirdly, the Israeli mothers indicated their children tend to use their gifts privately since their gifts are given separately and, thus, pertain to each person's individual preferences.

DISCUSSION

As mentioned before, this study placed a particular emphasis on why, when, where, and how mothers in the three cultures exchange gifts with other family members. As our findings indicate, the role mothers play during family gift giving is essentially the same across cultures. The mothers invest more time, energy, and thought than other family members in all aspects of the gift-giving process. Thus, they are more involved in the selection, purchase, wrapping, and presentation of gifts. The mothers also play a central role in shaping the gift-giving behaviour of other family members by overt and subtle messages. Further, the mothers in all three cultures seem to define their identity to a large extent around their role as gift givers, considering it to be a fundamental component of their motherhood. While these findings agree with previous research (Caplow 1982, DiLeonardo 1987, Cheal 1988, and Fischer and Arnold 1990), our contribution is in demonstrating that the central gift-giving role of mothers is universal across cultures.

Even though mothers play the central role in family gift giving across cultures, a closer analysis reveals there are distinct cultural differences in their gift-giving behaviour. Table 2 summarises these major differences.

As Table 2 indicates, the three cultures differ on each of the four gift-giving elements: (1) motivation, (2) selection, (3) presentation, and (4) reaction. The typical gift-giving behaviour of the Anglo-Celtic mother is characterised by an emphasis on short-term goals, prestigious name brand items which are regarded as "quality", and an intense influence on the mother by the children of all ages. The typical gift-giving behaviour of the Sino-Vietnamese mother is characterised by an emphasis on long-term goals, money and practical gifts that are usually obtained at reduced prices, and an intense influence on all family members by the mother. Finally, the typical gift-giving behaviour of the Israeli mother is characterised by an emphasis on both long-term and short-term goals, money and gift items that are usually obtained at reduced prices, and a moderate influence on the mother by the children, depending on their age.

Hofstede's (1980) research was used in this study to offer possible explanations for the unique patterns reflected in the gift-giving behaviour of mothers in the three cultures. Even though Hofstede's research focused on organisations, our study assumes his findings are applicable to group behaviour in other contexts, i.e. the family. In particular, two of Hofstede's dimensions seem especially applicable to our study: power distance and individualism/collectivism.

Hofstede (1980) uses the term power distance as a measure of the extent to which a society accepts the unequal distribution of power. A high power-distance society accepts wide differences in power. Its members show a great deal of respect for those in authority. Title, rank, and status carry a significant weight. In contrast, a low power-distance society plays down inequities. While superiors still have authority, they are not feared or revered.

Hofstede (1980) uses the term "individualism" to refer to a loosely-knit social framework in which people are chiefly supposed to look after their own interests. Its opposite is the term "collectivism" which refers to a tight social framework in which people expect others in the group to which they belong, e.g. the family, to nurture and protect them. In exchange for this security, they feel they owe absolute allegiance to the group.

Table 3 presents the Hofstede (1980) data for the two cultural dimensions relevant to our study, i.e. power distance and individualism/collectivism. Australia represents our Anglo-Celtic group, Israel represents our Israeli group, and Taiwan represents our Sino-Vietnamese group. While Hofstede's study did not include China or any Overseas Chinese group, Taiwan was included to represent a Chinese culture. For this reason, our Sino-Vietnamese group, as a Chinese culture, is represented here by the data for Taiwan.

TABLE 2

MAJOR DIFFERENCES BETWEEN GIFT-GIVING BEHAVIOUR OF ANGLO-CELTIC, SINO-VIETNAMESE, AND ISRAELI MOTHERS

As Table 3 indicates, the three cultures significantly differ on the power-distance dimension. While Taiwan (Sino-Vietnamese) is reasonably high on this dimension (58), Australia (Anglo-Celtic) is moderate (36), and Israel (Israeli) is extremely low (13). The different positions of the three cultures on the power-distance dimension can explain the nature of the negotiation process that takes place between mothers and their children prior to and during gift selection. Thus, the Sino-Vietnamese mothers, who are members of a high power-distance culture, report they make all gift selections alone, frequently ignoring their children's preferences. The Anglo-Celtic mothers, who are members of a moderate power-distance culture, report that even though they are generally influenced by their children's preferences, they still reserve the right to 'surprise' them with gifts the children did not specifically request. It is only the Israeli mothers, who are members of a very low power-distance culture, who go so far as to say that with their older children they prefer to give money, expecting them to make their own gift selections.

As Table 3 also indicates, the three cultures differ significantly on the individualism-collectivism dimension. While Australia (Anglo-Celtic) is extremely high on individualism (90), Israel (Israeli) is moderate (54), and Taiwan (Sino-Vietnamese) is extremely low (17). The different positions of the cultures on the individualism-collectivism dimension can explain the way in which mothers in the cultures justify why they buy gifts for their children. The Anglo-Celtic mothers, as members of a highly individualistic culture, report they buy gifts to satisfy the selfish needs of their children rather than to strengthen the children's long-term relationship within the family. The Sino-Vietnamese mothers, as members of a culture that is very low on individualism (highly collectivistic), mention that gifts and money are given to bolster the children's long-term family relationship. Finally, the Israeli mothers as members of a culture in the middle of the individualistic-collectivistic continuum, indicate gift items and money are sometimes given to strengthen the children's long-term family relationship (educationally-related gifts) and sometimes to satisfy the children's immediate desires.

IMPLICATIONS FOR FURTHER RESEARCH

Since this study was exploratory, the sample was not intended to be statistically significant. Instead, the data was intended to be used as a basis for identifying major patterns of gift-giving behaviour characteristic of mothers in the three cultures. Consequently, the conclusions drawn from this research should not be seen as necessarily representing the general population from which the sample was drawn. Thus, our study's design leaves ample scope for further research in several directions.

TABLE 3

THE HOFSTEDE DATA FOR THE THREE CULTURES

Firstly, further research could go beyond the nuclear, middle-class family to consider other family types and social classes. Also, cultures other than the three that were explored could be considered. In future, other cultures that represent extreme high, extreme low, and medium on Hofstede's (1980) two dimensions could be investigated. For instance, considerations could be the U.S. for extremely high on individualism, Pakistan for extremely low on individualism, and Japan for medium on individualism. This would help establish if our study's findings are idiosyncratic to the three cultures selected or reflect their ranking on the Hofstede dimensions. Another possibility could be to extend the study into cultures that are not necessarily at the extremes or the middle of the Hofstede continuum. Finally, even though we looked at three cultures which happened to be different on the power-distance and individualism-collectivism dimensions, further research could explore if cultures which differ on other dimensions in Hofstede's model also exhibit distinct gift-giving behaviour patterns.

Secondly, further research could also be extended to include family members other than mothers. Various family gift-giving roles could be explored in isolation as in this study or in an interactive way, looking at the entire family within and across cultures.

Finally, Belk (1979) highlighted the need to link gift giving with the general body of consumer behaviour literature. He also indicated gift giving is one of the most important ways in which parents socialise their children as consumers. Our findings suggest there is indeed a link between mothers' gift-giving behaviour and children's perceptions and behaviour as consumers. Thus, future extensions of our research should look at how gift-giving behaviour of different family members, particularly mothers, affects and shapes children's consumer behaviour across cultures.

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